INNOVATION AHEAD OF ITS TIME

HOW TWO INDUSTRY VISIONARIES FROM LE-VEL FORECASTED THE NEED FOR AN ALL-VIRTUAL WORKPLACE.

HAVE YOU EVER watched children play? Notice how their imaginations transform ordinary objects and places into whatever their minds conjure in the moment. Cardboard boxes become spaceships. A towel becomes a superhero cape. The backyard becomes a jungle. Kids don’t let what or how things are get in the way of what and how they could be. As we get older, our ability to be innovative doesn’t go away, but we tend to lose touch with our imaginations. We are more self conscious about being different. For kids, “the concept of ‘saving face’ is not developed or important,” writes Yoram Solomon, founder of Large Scale Creativity, in Inc. magazine. “As a result, children wouldn’t mind asking stupid questions or suggesting stupid ideas.”

Yet, being willing to try something new or to suggest something that might appear off-base or even fail is the first step toward true innovation.

“Imagination—the capacity to create, evolve, and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t yet exist—is the crucial factor in seizing and creating new opportunities, and finding new paths to growth,” say innovation experts and scholars Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller, in a recent Harvard Business Review column.

Industries are redefined when innovative thinkers are bold enough to reimagine a familiar product, process or service. This month, we dig into examples of innovation in the global marketplace as well as within the direct selling industry and talk about the importance of recapturing that childhood creative spirit.

DIRECT SELLING’S VISIONARY GAME CHANGERS

In 2012, direct selling companies in the nutraceutical category exhibited very predictable patterns. All of the giants in the space offered similar marketing techniques, expensive brick-and-mortar headquarters, and cumbersome information-laden websites with extensive training modules.

Experienced distributors and industry executives Jason Camper and Paul Gravette looked at that landscape, decided the industry was long overdue for an upgrade and set out to launch Le-Vel, a direct selling company unlike anything else in the marketplace. It was as though they instinctively understood that just because business had always been done a certain way didn’t mean it was the only way it could be done.

Having worked as a C-suite level executive in other direct selling organizations, Camper knew that one of the biggest challenges those companies faced was their traditional corporate headquarters setup. “They couldn’t scale quickly,” Camper described. “They couldn’t make quick decisions, and they couldn’t adapt quickly. Everything was a complex hassle.”

Recognizing this overlooked room for innovation, the two used software that Jason Camper had previously created which allowed Le-Vel to be the channel’s first company created deliberately without a brick-andmortar home office and began organizing the premium lifestyle brand that would become a movement. Together, they began swimming against the industry tide.

When they announced that their company would be built and operate entirely in the cloud without any real estate attached to it, the industry took notice and then plenty of competitors scoffed. “We’re willing to go against the status quo instead of conforming,” Camper says. “I joke saying we were this unicorn coming into a balloon factory. Nobody liked us; we were different; we were doing things the opposite way and popping a lot of balloons. And maybe that made some people mad, but it also attracted a lot of people to our vision and to where we were going.”

Their willingness to innovate in an industry known for a very specific operation style gave them an immediate upper hand in several categories that competitors are still striving to catch up to today, eight years later. Le-Vel’s flexibility, for one, is unmatched.

Without a permanent home base, the company has been able to rapidly tip the scales back and forth between growth and frugality as needed, which has given the leadership breathing room for experimental innovation that might handicap other more traditional direct selling companies with heavier, fixed budgets. “We’ve kept ourselves very nimble since day one,” Gravette says.

“Because we are a cloud-based company, it allows us to adapt and accelerate into the future so much faster than other companies, and we can afford to do it.”

The day-to-day processes of running a company without a main office may sound unconventional—because it is—but it has proven to be one of the company’s greatest assets. Without loads of staff, restrictive hours or layers of in-house bureaucracy, business moves faster and more efficiently.

“Our infrastructure allows us to be as automated as possible,” Camper says. “Commission payouts, shipping and fulfillment, customer service, supply chain–all the primary foundational pieces that support and operate and manage a direct sales company–are automated at Le-Vel. We don’t have to rely on 200 to 300 employees to do every task needed to manage the business.”

Pushing themselves and their customers to new places has led Le-Vel to bring category-creating products to market—like their signature Derma Fusion Technology— but new product offerings are only a single thread in their tapestry of relentless innovation. “We don’t try to replicate what has already been done in health and wellness,” Camper says. “We try to do something new and take a new path. That’s very apparent. From an innovation standpoint, we always want to have that true game-changer, like DFT or the Thrive Experience. One of the reasons we have become so successful is because we exhaustively focus on innovation.”

RESPONSIBLY REMOTE

Working remotely is a new ballgame for most direct selling companies. When the stay-at-home orders were announced, and most leaders sent their corporate staff home to work, the challenges began for those who had clung to traditional operating systems. Frantic to maintain their creative momentum, they scrambled to adapt to new methods of communication and virtual office environments. Suddenly, everyone was seeking to replicate what had been business as usual for Le-Vel for almost a decade.

Industry leaders began attempting to accelerate their acceptance of less traditional cyber options. Simple apps that served only as prospecting tools but served no real function began to be revealed for what they really were—clunky, ineffective tools—and companies amped up their urgency to provide in-app functionality, like direct sampling, that let distributors work 100 percent from their phones.

Corporate teams rapidly educated themselves on Zoom security measures and how to create online accountability for workers who had never been tasked outside of the four walls of the office and the watchful eye of their supervisor. Le-Vel, on the other hand, wa  free to focus on customer service, safety and expansion while their remote staff—who are not only highly skilled for their roles but also highly accustomed to working autonomously—collaborated from all over the globe.

“Not everyone has to be in one city or one location,” says Le-Vel President and Chief Legal Officer Drew Hoffman.

“Cloud technology allows us to target and hire the very best people throughout the U.S. and the world.We find natural go-getters who take responsibility for their own actions and Thrive in our non-traditional setting. They are empowered to drive their departments and the company forward while having the freedom and flexibility of working from home. That’s been a huge benefit, and it draws incredibly talented and high quality people to Le-Vel.”

COULD HEADQUARTERS BE A RELIC OF THE PAST ?

This historic season is a turning point for the industry. Some companies that have formed an identity from their destination headquarters will never be officecentric again. Why? Companies will now be hiring from a workforce that demands flexibility after tasting a year or more of remote work freedom. Investors will be courting brands who can compete in a virtual marketplace, and budgets will need to be scaled down to contend with leaner competitors who can run further, faster. Not to mention the gluttonous reality of witnessing massive company estates sitting vacant while the world and the industry keep turning.

What has been a given for more than 100 years within the industry—lavish headquarters, multiple satellite offices and budgets fat with staff and overhead—is quickly becoming a relic. The industry will never, ever be as physical as it has been in the past. But Jason and Paul have proven through cloud-based Le-Vel that the direct selling industry can be personal, competitive and effective without those limiting factors. Teams can work together effectively from a distance. Distributors can rely on the automated processes this virtual infrastructure provides, and the brand as a whole can possess more freedom to push boundaries and try out new concepts.

This pandemic and the virtual, cloud-based life that it has necessitated are a big moment for the industry. Where it is headed will not be the same as where it has always serenely been. And although it couldn’t have been anticipated, somehow, two visionary innovators saw it coming a decade before the rest of the industry. Anyone wanting to stay in the game would be wise to heed their cautionary advice.

“We operate in the cloud and so should you,” Gravette says. “If you can’t build your business via the phone, it’s probably not going to work anyway.”

LEARNING FROM THE DISRUPTORS

The obvious giant of creativity and game disruption is Amazon. After Amazon untethered retail sales from the in-person experience, it continued to personalize and shape the consumer experience through artificial intelligence, or AI. It was a template that would be repeated through Chatbots who answer customer service questions and mimicked by Google ads that tailor content to align with browsing histories and social media posts.

Just as Amazon took advantage of its AI resource as part of its innovative strategy, so too have gig economy pioneers led the way in capitalizing on underutilized assets. Airbnb, Lyft and Uber have built entrepreneurial kingdoms by providing pathways for people to benefit from the combination of their own pre existing physical resources and the companies’ digital platforms.

To have an advantage over the biggest names in the innovation game, like Amazon, a company would need to provide the same efficient customer service experience but create an enhanced interpersonal connection that no AI could provide. In other words, they would need to tap into an underutilized asset that these giants don’t have access to.

The direct selling industry is poised to do just that, with its hundreds of thousands of members, but it will require teaching distributors how to embrace their own underutilized asset—time—to create a market disrupting, personalized experience for customers.